It was all the movie business could do. Television was eating into its audience, viewers more eager to sit at home and enjoy limited entertainment on a small 12” screen vs. taking the entire family to their local 1000 seat theater. Even with superior sound, enhanced visual quality (with developments like Cinemascope and Todd-O Vision), and a larger than life overall experience, the novelty of the new living room technology was changing the cultural dynamic. Then some enterprising distributors decided to use the old roadshow roll out. Developed in the days when a simultaneous national release was virtually impossible, these special event presentations saw a film - and various accompanying attractions/actors/advertising - canvas the country, drumming up interest via the mere exclusivity of a city-to-city play date. One of the last mavericks of such an approach was Samuel Bronston, and one of his biggest hits centered on the fabled Spanish hero, El Cid.
The myth surrounding the title character, otherwise known as Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar begins as all such romanticized history does - with a wedding thwarted and an act of charity leading to charges of treason. After releasing a captured Moorish general and his men, our soon to be conqueror earns the gratitude, and undying loyalty, of his previous prisoners. Naturally, the King and his court are not happy, and Rodrigo is accused of being a traitor. As the noblemen debate his fate, he seeks the solace of his beautiful bride to be Jimena, daughter of the royal champion. Their love is undying and undeniable. But when his own father is insulted, Rodrigo challenges his lady love’s guardian to a duel. The results ruin the relationship with his fiancé forever. As the King’s newest knight, El Cid is sent to negotiate with disloyal factions in the kingdom. He eventual succeeds, and an innate ability to avoid ambush and double cross turn him into a rural icon. Soon, competitive elements within the royal family will challenge his sense of duty, and his love for Jimena…and all the while, the Moors are preparing for all out war.
Anchored by yet another stellar Charleton Heston performance and propelled by director Anthony Mann’s sense of scale, El Cid is the kind of good old fashioned filmmaking that truly satisfies the deepest inner cravings of an aesthetic starved movie buff. Lacking the usual clunky dialogue that dooms such sword and sandal period pieces, and laced with a thread of near religious allusion in its themes, we wind up with the kind of larger then life experience that makes history seem evocative and personal sacrifice the noblest of all intentions. While the story of how Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is slightly marginalized by the artform’s natural tendency to over-tweak the genre, and some of the supporting players can’t match master thespian Chuck’s mantle, we still walk away feeling drawn in by a monumental experience that does a devastating job of putting us right inside the ideological conflict at play.
Indeed, some may feel an odd sense of déjà vu as the main Moor villain - the incredibly bad Ben Yussuf, portrayed by an unrecognizable Herbert Lom - delivers his anti-enlightenment screeds. It’s all burning books, avoiding knowledge, limiting freedom, and Islamic fundamentalist fanaticism. The notion of a Muslim army overthrowing the rest of the known world via sheer brute force and insane violence is nothing new, but in our current hot button foreign policy pickle, such pronouncements seem prophetic. Some will also recognize a similar Arabs as mannered madmen ideal like the one forwarded in 300. The enemy’s misguided sense of purpose is outlandish and intense. With the exacting costumes and large scale battle scenes, Mann and his mega-sized war machinery definitely leave a big impression.
But El Cid is not all gigantic battles and a cast of several thousand. Some of the best moments are one on one, like Rodrigo’s swordfight with the father of his fiancé. It’s a perfectly paced and performed bit of stunt swashbuckling. Similarly, the jousting gauntlet sequence strikes the proper balance between dread and intended daring-do. Heston handles all his demands with aplomb, grace, and just a small amount of indirect demagoguery. Unlike his work in The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, there is very little humility in how he plays Cid. Only when confronted by his King does he ever let his guard down. Even playing against a slightly stiff Sophia Loren (who really isn’t given much to do except look stoic), there is a humble hubris percolating at the core of his character’s being. He knows he’s right - he’s just waiting for the rest of Spain to get clued in.
All of this leads to one of those amazing real life recreations, complete with a windswept seaside setting, untold extras, and enough found location legitimacy to keep the pomp palpable. It takes oversized actors to carry off Mann’s motives, and Heston is the perfect proto-idol. While not quite Latin in his looks, he is one of the few thoroughly modern actors who appear comfortable, even authentic, in outlandish 11th century garb. It’s easy to scoff at this material, to see El Cid as a throwback to the days when producers provided audiences with the pre-CGI notion of eye candy and figured that this would be enough - and in some cases, it was. But within this rather dense narrative, Mann incorporates enough Shakespearean substance to amplify the ideas projected. It makes the main character’s last act sacrifice, and the denouements surrounding it, all the more memorable.
Long unavailable on DVD - many of these bloated bits of ballyhoo became lost in a quagmire of competing rights once movies went simplistic and post-modern - the Weinsteins should be praised considerably for bringing this movie back from the home video dead. The pristine, almost perfect anamorphic widescreen image captures Mann’s magnificent framing and composition with polish and professionalism. The picture here is just amazing. Similarly, a newly struck Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix bolsters the brilliant score by Miklos Rozsa (Ben Hur, King of Kings). But the best element of this Miriam Collection release is the context. With commentaries, production featurettes and other print-based bonuses, we get a vivid picture of what it took for Bronston to bring this project to life.
On the full length complementary discussion, Bill, the late producer’s son, talks about his dad and his desire to make movies. He’s joined by Neil M. Rosendorf, historian and Bronston biographer. While the latter can’t help but overly praise the film, and link everything back to his Jewish heritage, the overall conversation provides the kind of clarity we need to understand this phase of mainstream moviemaking. Equally insightful are the documentaries, bonuses that concentrate on the movie, Mann, Rozsa, and the difficulty in preserving cinema’s past. Together with a booklet outlining the film and its famous roadshow success, we get a clear picture of what made Bronston tick - and why he choose such a large canvas to tell his tales.
The answer is obvious - in order to battle novelty, one has to be equally unique as well. The roadshow, with its event-like mentality and sense of spectacle, was a surefire way to get audiences back to the bijou. It announced an experience unlike anything they were normally used to, and promised to deliver sound and vision incomparable - especially from a fledgling medium like television. And for a while it worked, and watching El Cid some 48 years later, it’s easy to see why. By combining expert casting, lush opticals, and narratives that span the scope of all human experience, the epic promised the very essence of man’s place within the universe. In that capacity, Bronston and El Cid truly deliver. Thankfully, the Weinstein’s new DVD arm gets such grandeur as well. This new digital package is one of the year’s best.